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Food, Glorious Food : THE BOOK OF INTIMATE GRAMMAR, By David Grossman . Translated from the Hebrew by Betsy Rosenberg (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $22; 363 pp.)

August 28, 1994|Geoffrey Wheatcroft | Geoffrey Wheatcroft, a British newspaper columnist , is completing a book about Zionism and its effect on Diaspora Jewry

In one way, I sometimes sense, American Jews envy the Israelis. With all the problems of life in Israel, the difficulties and the dangers, the anxieties and the moral ambiguities, its people are living out a great historical drama. They have been watched and encouraged from afar by those who are not only now the largest Jewish community on earth but also a community that has achieved a level of security and prosperity quite unknown in previous Jewish history. And yet life in California or New York is just too secure and prosperous to be challenging or exciting; hence the secret envy.

And living out a passage of history is a bonus for writers, almost unfair advantage. Some South African writers of the last 40 years have been overrated (in my judgment, and as I believe literary posterity will also judge) because they have been granted a Big Subject, one whose historical and moral importance can make our own novels of urban Angst or suburban adultery seem footling. Something of the same is true of Israeli writers. Not that they are necessarily overrated, individually or collectively. But they would have to admit that they are never short of subject.

David Grossman's specialism is to approach that subject through the eyes of childhood. He did so in his last novel, the remarkable though maybe a mite too ambitious, "See Under: Love." He has done it again in his new novel "The Book of Intimate Grammar." It is a novel of adolescence, the passage from childhood experienced by one boy. We meet Aron Kleinfeld at his home in Jerusalem not long before his bar mitzvah. Aron is no Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield, but a reversed, dreamy boy fascinated by Houdini. Life sets him more and more at an angle to his vulgar and plebeian parents. He is not so much solitary as introspective: He has a gang of friends from school, but his real life is led inside his mind.

Grossman remembers uncannily what it was like to be 12. The discovery of sex comes about in fits and starts and sometimes by accident. Well before Aron falls in love for the first time, he finds a packet of pornographic photographs behind his father's sock drawer, and studies them with understandable puzzlement and wonder. He wonders as well about the meaning of life, if there is one. "Has anyone ever actually seen a soul? Maybe people like Winston Churchill and Albert Schweitzer and Ben-Gurion have souls. Okay. They're spiritual giants, but what about the others? Does Papa have one? Does Mama?"

As the author accurately recalls, the real dominant passion of early adolescence isn't lust but gluttony. This book has a--in the correct sense of the world--Dickensian relish for food of all kinds: scrambled eggs, salami sandwiches (eaten illicitly with butter by his father), "peppery Yemenite skhug ," falafel after the movies followed by pumpkin seeds, and then frozen custard, Creambo and chocolate twisters at the Cafe Allenby. Aron's mother even turns instinctively to culinary imagery when she explains what virtue meant in the days when she was young and unmarried. Her husband-to-be "never laid a finger on me, not him or anyone before him, not like girls these days who serve the compote before the forspeiz."

More even than taste, the book is shot through with descriptions you can almost feel and smell. Aron is sometimes obsessed with foul odors. Or he presses himself against his mother's body, "into her soft, saggy waistline, her heaving bosom, and the perspiring nest under her arms. . . ." There is a good deal of this almost painfully precise detail in the subplot of Papa's rather humiliating connection with Edna Bloom.

Like all of Grossman's books, his two fascinating works of reportage as well as fiction, "The Book of Intimate Grammar" is forcefully and strikingly well-written (and, like his two previous novels, it is quite excellently translated from the Hebrew by Betsy Rosenberg). Now and again his intoxication with language carries him away: a sentence that reads "Like egg white folded evenly into batter so his days were stirred into time" might be a candidate for the old "Block that metaphor" column in the New Yorker. And occasionally there are signs of inattention. Although the author doubtless meant to tell us that Madame Nikova the ballet teacher spoke with a thick Russian accent, he maybe didn't mean to tell us this twice within 20 pages. But these are lapses.

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